27 May 2010

Proof positive + second trip to Pittsburgh + second thoughts on Lewis

It's been a busy week. I got back from my second (vastly exhausting but also very rewarding) trip to Pittsburgh this past weekend, and I started another class at RIC - Bridge to Advanced Mathematics, in which we basically learn how to do proofs. I think I'll describe first my second trip to Pittsburgh, since that's been the most enlightening aspect of my past week.

We flew out on the morning of 21 May, not ridiculously early but early enough to leave its mark on my energy levels, rented a car, reserved a hotel room and basically went exploring several small-apartment options with the ultimate aim of trying to pin down a lease, but also doing some exploring of the environs of the East End (where the local shops are, where local churches are, where the bus stops are, how far it is walking from campus, &c.) in the rain, which was on and off pretty much our whole trip out. The apartments I looked at were primarily in the Friendship and Squirrel Hill neighbourhoods on the East End - I finally set up a lease on an apartment which is currently being renovated, but which will be done by the time I move back in August. Here is one of the houses in the same neighbourhood:

Looked good once, and will again once it's done being rebuilt, most like. But it looks like fire damage was pretty widespread among these houses (which is strange because a lot of them, like this one, are brick) - a supposition corroborated somewhat by the insistence of the landlords on fire-safety precautions and fire-related liability waivers in the lease agreements. These are old houses (maybe even as old as the Victorian my family currently owns), probably going back to when Pittsburgh was a steel town. When I'm there next I'll be sure to read up on my local history and lore; it's sure to be engrossing. It is, after all, Mr Rogers' Neighbourhood (although Mr Rogers produced his show out of Oakland rather than Friendship)!

The closest Episcopal Church (and pretty much the only one in what I would consider walking-distance) is Calvary Church, which also has some significant lore (and, indeed, current importance) attached to it, as well as being a very physically impressive edifice (all the more so being an almost ur-Gothic church building shot on a rainy day):

It was the first church in the United States, actually, to do a service by radio broadcast in 1921; more recently, it was one of the more prominent Episcopal churches on the loyalist side of the unfortunate schism in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I admit to being impressed with the sermons (those of them that I've had the time to read); it will be good to visit this church and get a fuller impression.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to stay long - we left the morning of 23 May back for Providence, and I had to prepare for my summer course in advanced mathematics. Basically, the first chapter was all review of my freshman Logic and Reasoning course at Kalamazoo College; my thanks to Prof Steve Petersen for making that class not only enjoyable but also highly applicable here - I'm starting to get the feeling you've made my life infinitely easier. Now we get to put the rules of formal logic into writing up mathematical proofs! Even though the class has by this point only just begun, I nevertheless am beginning to empathise strongly with Aaron (my math-major roommate from senior year at K) for having to do basically proof-writing for a significant chunk of his time there. It being logic, it makes sense, but at the same time it is a lot of grinding, a lot of trial-and-error, and it is beginning to strike me that it requires the occasional flash of artistic creativity that leads to the application of axiomatic statements in unexpected ways.

I mentioned in my earlier post that I was reading CS Lewis. I'm currently about three-quarters of the way through Mere Christianity, and I must confess to being deeply impressed by it thus far. Though I was heavily critical of his view of pacifism in my series of blog posts on Protestantism a while back, and though I continue to disagree with his stance there, I have a much more profound intellectual appreciation for the man's work on a closer reading. He's very conventional, not an original thinker or an innovator by any means - indeed, it almost strikes me that he would be insulted by such a label, were it to be applied to him! - but he applies his remarkable creative and intellectual energies into articulating an interpretation of Christian teaching which speaks strongly to the condition of the reader. Naturally, there are parts of his vision which I find more rigorously articulated than others; his chapters on sexual morality and Christian marriage were solid right up until the point where he began arguing for a complementarian view of the relationship between husbands and wives (my own experience has been that how well or how fairly one makes decisions has very much more to do with personal temperament than with physical gender; in Scripture also the issue is not so cut-and-dried). He's at his best, though, when he is discussing a topic from his own experiences, and he is certainly not one to shy away from discussing hard topics (particularly like forgiveness, given the spirit of the time in which he was writing). I certainly hope that the Screwtape letters is as solid a read as this book has been.

17 May 2010

Week off + revised reading list

Huzzah! Finals are done, and I have my marks for both micro and macroeconomics. I did well, thankfully, in both - and now I have a week before my maths summer course begins, during which I will likely be looking at apartments in Pittsburgh. And reading. A lot of reading.

Currently on my list is The epistle to the Romans (chapters I-VIII) by Bishop Charles Gore (the Founding Father, as it were, of modern Anglo-Catholicism), and I'm about three-quarters of the way through that. Next up on my immediate reading list are Komarr and A civil campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold, Evolutionary socialism: a criticism and affirmation by Eduard Bernstein, 《中庸》 by Confucius with a translation by James Legge, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape letters by C S Lewis, and Saving Adam Smith by Jonathan Wight - a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, Fun-reading and Important Books-reading; we'll see how far I get through this revised list before next week...

14 May 2010

The theory of communicative action: an exegesis and commentary by John M Osbourne

I often think our Ozzy's quite a bit deeper than we give him credit - if you actually listen to the lyrics of the song, he really does seem to be talking about the fragmentation of consciousness and the neuroses that develop from the rationalisation of our lifeworlds away from their intended purposes and their colonisation by social media that want to strategically use them to sell us a bill of goods that we don't necessarily want. Of course, the truly tragic irony of this song is that its own purposive rationality has been colonised these past two decades by Blizzard Entertainment and the corporate patrons of the Superbowl to sell us World of Warcraft (among various other kinds of rubbish we don't need).

Of course, Heidegger might have a thing or two to say objecting to the limiting dasein of the title and refrain of the song 'Crazy Train', but that's another commentary entirely!

12 May 2010

What does it mean to be a ‘patriot’?

In this political climate, one all too often hears appeals to patriotism from fairly strange sources – or finds one’s own patriotism called into question (often none-too-subtly) by one’s political opponents, who deem themselves the only ‘real’ Americans while laughably declaring the duly elected President of the United States ‘un-American’. Thus the question arises, far from a new one, as to whom one might call a ‘patriot’ – or what the term even means in the first place. As with many things, the poor noun itself has been so badly abused and contorted that it has become nearly meaningless. (For example, while I quite enjoyed Ben Croshaw’s now somewhat-dated review of MOH: Airborne, is it fair of him to cede the territory of patriotism to the purveyors of the jingoistic sentiments he quite properly mocks, declaring at the end that ‘patriotism is for twats’?)

With all respect to Mr Croshaw, I might call to the gentle reader’s attention the thoughts of another Englishman of sharp wit on the subject, namely Dr Johnson. Dr Johnson in his 1774 brief (appropriately entitled ‘The Patriot’) noted all the marks of those who call themselves ‘patriots’ but do not behave as such. For example:

He that has been refused a reasonable, or unreasonable request, who thinks his merit underrated, and sees his influence declining, begins soon to talk of natural equality... As his political melancholy increases, he tells, and, perhaps, dreams, of the advances of the prerogative, and the dangers of arbitrary power; yet his design, in all his declamation, is not to benefit his country, but to gratify his malice.


To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion. The fallaciousness of this note of patriotism is particularly apparent, when the clamour continues after the evil is past.

Given the anger and threats of violence, the racial animus, the counterfactual conspiracy theories and the palpable malice which underlies so many of these recent tax protests – against a general tax rate which indeed has hit a 60-year low! – I believe Dr Johnson’s colourful descriptions of false patriotism absolutely apt in these cases. More, he eviscerates the pretensions to patriotism of the very jingoistic pro-war attitudes that Mr Croshaw skewers in his own review (albeit in a different context):

It may, therefore, be safely pronounced, that those men are no patriots, who, when the national honour was vindicated in the sight of Europe, and the Spaniards having invaded what they call their own, had shrunk to a disavowal of their attempt, and a relaxation of their claim, would still have instigated us to a war, for a bleak and barren spot in the Magellanick ocean, of which no use could be made, unless it were a place of exile for the hypocrites of patriotism.

But if we can so easily identify examples of such false patriotism in our own time, whether they are stoking the irrational resentments and insecurities of the rabble, whether they are making untenable promises or whether they are waving the flag the louder to clamour for war, are we then to give up any notion of a true patriotism? Though Dr Johnson spends less time on this question, he does give us some tantalising hints as to what he comprehends in his notion of a true patriot:

He considers himself as deputed to promote the publick good, and to preserve his constituents, with the rest of his countrymen, not only from being hurt by others, but from hurting themselves.

A ‘patriot’ in Dr Johnson’s terms is willing not only to entertain the notion of but promote a ‘publick good’, and to care for the well-being of ‘the rest of his countrymen’. Such a patriot would be a rare thing indeed to encounter in modern American society! We now have very few among our leadership who are bold enough to ask us to make any kind of sacrifice, or bear any burden at all for the sake of promoting the common good, who ask us to be generous with our time and our money and our service without first stroking our egos and assuring us of our unmitigated (supposedly Constitutional) entitlement to do with our own property whatever we please (and damn the consequences!). Whither Kennedy, who implored his fellow Americans to ‘ask not what the country can do for [them, but rather what they] can do for [their] country’? I can certainly appreciate that President Obama may be attempting to move the needle back in that direction – and though he still weighs it down pretty heavily with a form of exceptionalist rhetoric which I feel is not entirely honest, I hope he meets with some level of success.

I tend to (optimistically) agree with Johnson rather than with Croshaw – I think it is possible that there might be an honest form of patriotism, one which isn’t just ‘for twats’. But I feel it requires a far more highly-developed civic sensibility than is being presently encouraged, and a far less polarised society.

Well, for a midnight rant, I hope that was at least partially coherent. I may have some more time to flesh them out better in the future.

On with finals week!

05 May 2010

Sociological and economic theories of the culture wars

I would highly recommend reading Professor Russell Arben Fox's comments on Jonathan Rauch's review of a sociology of the culture wars by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, since it explores one of the major 'sticking points' in the national discourse which makes courtesy and understanding so difficult. Why is it that the regions and cultural climates which show the highest amount of popular support for conservative social norms (stances against homosexuality, premarital sex, &c.) display a lifestyle which runs completely counter to those norms (higher rates of divorce, teen pregnancy and births out of wedlock)?

Professor Fox presents Rauch's sociological analysis as 'plausible', but at the same time he tends to fault it for ignoring the formative factor of religion. His analysis tends to privilege the Hegelian model (ideological paradigm shifts preceding economic and social behaviour paradigm shifts) over the Marxist model (economic paradigm shifts preceding ideological ones) while Rauch's does the inverse, but he has a good point. As religious institutions have lost their place in the social fabric as the loci of community and as the voices of community conscience advocating for concrete social change, religion has become something hyper-personalised, a hobby or an accessory rather than a source of existential grounding and self-definition. On the one hand, one sees the liberalising element shying away from challenging parishioners to open themselves to Scripture, to reflect, to discuss and to decide matters of political and social importance for the society (out of seeming fear of causing offence), and on the other hand you have an element of fundamentalist reaction monologically dictating the meaning of Scripture, discouraging open discussion and making stringent demands upon its followers in order to change society to its own political will. Both aspects would appear to be outgrowths of a tendency which I began to sketch from within my own adoptive Church tradition, what Fr Alexander of St Stephen's Episcopal Church terms 'self-defining orthodoxy'.

The question, though, is when and how the mainline churches lost their positions of prophetic witness with solid moorings in the community life, and it might be the case that Rauch (and Cahn and Carbone) have the right of it after all. One might easily imagine an increased physical and social mobility, the result of higher levels of industrialisation in the economy, being a cause of this decline, rather than a consequence. In which case, it becomes incumbent on the Church to reimagine its role within this advanced industrial social paradigm, and find ways to articulate an affirming, responsible Christian progressivism which provides deep meaning and 'a safe place to land' to a hypermobile generation.

Thanks to Professor Fox for bringing it to attention - it is indeed good food for thought.

01 May 2010


全世界无产者,联合起来 and all that - Happy International Workers' Day, everyone!